Irish-American composer Victor Herbert shaped the early American musical stage like no other. The NI Opera Studio will bring his operetta The Enchantress to the region from 6 – 8 December. NI Opera dramaturg Judith Wiemers spoke to Alyce Mott, the founder and Artistic Director of the New York-based Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! (VHRS Live!), which has lovingly restored and staged some of the composer’s forgotten pieces in recent years.
JW: What is Victor Herbert’s most distinctive quality?
AM: That is really difficult and would take multiple pages to do justice to, but his best qualities as a composer would be 1) melody and 2) ability to orchestrate his own work. Melodies flowed out of this man uninterrupted for 40 years. He wrote 45 produced operettas/musical comedies produced on Broadway and every single one is filled with “ear worms” or “ear candy”: melodies that you walk out of the theatre humming and you can’t get them out of head for several weeks. Examples from The Enchantress are, “Art Is Calling for Me” or “Land of My Own Romance”. Victor Herbert was also one of the very few American composers who orchestrated his music himself, rather than giving a third party the control of the overall sound.
JW: What was Herbert’s relationship with Ireland?
AM: Victor’s mother was Fanny Lover, daughter of Samuel Lover (1797 – 1868), a major Irish poet, composer, painter, and novelist born in Dublin. His father was August Herbert, a German (we think) who was not married to Fanny at the time. That makes him half Irish. Victor was born on the Isle of Jersey off the coast of Normandy. It is a fact that Victor Herbert never set foot in Ireland. However, young Victor spent 4 years living with his maternal grandfather, Samuel Lover who lived outside of London at the time and fell totally in love with everything Irish, especially her music from constant exposure to the friends and acquaintances who streamed through Samuel Lover’s home. He was the single loudest and most famous champion of Ireland in America from 1886 when he arrived until 1924 when he passed away. His Irish music compositions are exquisite, particularly the Irish Rhapsody. Americans have always called him an Irish American. His Ireland-themed operettas include Princess Pat (1915) and Eileen (1917), and among others.
Announcement for Princess Pat, produced by VHRP LIVE!
JW: How have the productions of your revival project been received by American audiences?
AM: Amazingly well! Our audiences are growing constantly. We just began our sixth season with performances of Herbert’s 1914 The Debutante. I have been managing the Herbert revival here in the states since 1995 and the numbers of performances of Victor Herbert music is growing steadily. For many decades about all that was performed was his “March of the Toys” from Babes In Toyland. VHRP LIVE! has now reintroduced ten operettas/musical comedies, along with five concerts of Herbert songs. More and more orchestras are performing The Irish Rhapsody and his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Babes In Toyland is produced eight to ten times every year, and more and more productions of Eileen; Sweethearts; Naughty Marietta; The Red Mill; and The Enchantress are popping up across the country. America is remembering.
JW: Why are the Victor Herbert pieces so rarely performed in Europe?AM: That goes back to the very beginning of his work. He immigrated in 1886 with his wife Therese Forester from Stuttgart, Germany. In 1886, as far as Europe was concerned, there were the German composers of operetta, specifically Offenbach and Johann Strauss II, and in Britain there were Gilbert and Sullivan. Herbert’s librettos could never compete with Gilbert & Sullivan’s, thus the British in particular rarely liked his work. His only real success in Europe came with The Wizard of Nile, which was taken to Germany in 1896.
JW: What is Herbert’s significance for the development of the musical theatre genre in America of the early 20th century?
AM: Victor Herbert was quite simply a giant of the American musical theatre. He laid the foundation for high-quality music and real pit orchestras in American musical theatre. Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin grew up listening to his compositions. Because he orchestrated all his own work, Herbert was the only composer capable of writing for a full orchestra in theatre, including the famous Ziegfeld Follies. With his passing in 1924, there was a major void in theatre composition until 1927, when Robert Russell Bennett teamed with Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern for Show Boat. The 1920s produced no real masterpieces musically.
The ‘Enchantress’ libretto has the strong feel of a woman’s touch:
Victor Herbert’s librettist Frédérique “Fred” De Grésac
JW: Can you tell us anything about the creative partnership between Herbert and the writer team Frédérique De Grésac and Harry B. Smith?
AM: Frédérique De Grésac (1879 – 1943), better known in America as Fred, was one of two female Herbert collaborators and a representative of a particular type of female writer, who felt the need to hide the fact that they were indeed women in order to succeed. She was married to international operatic baritone, Victor Maurel (1848 – 1923), a star of the 1880s to 1900. They moved to New York City sometime prior to 1904. She was 31 years younger than her husband. She contributed the French dialogue in 1906 for the Herbert operetta of The Red Mill, libretto by Henry Blossom, but wasn’t credited. In 1911 De Gresac created the libretto (lyrics by Harry B. Smith) for Herbert’s The Enchantress (1911) As I am sure you have noticed, this libretto has the strong feel of a woman’s touch. In 1913 she co-wrote Sweethearts with Harry B. Smith (lyrics by Robert B. Smith). This operetta opened in the New Amsterdam Theatre on September 8, 1913. It has always been my contention that Ms. De Grésac wrote far more of this libretto than Harry B. Smith, but again, felt the need to have his name attached to the show, as he was a veritable star librettist in New York at the time. Smith was the most frequent Herbert librettist, but he was not a terribly good one. He was, however, an excellent lyricist. In 1922, De Grésac’s is the sole librettist listed for Victor Herbert’s Orange Blossoms with lyrics by Buddy G. De Sylva. Herbert was a champion of women-driven shows, and he collaborated with women during his entire career. His most famous female collaborator was Rida Johnson Young, who wrote libretto and lyrics for Naughty Marietta (1910).
JW: Many thanks for the enlightening insights!
AM: Thank you for bringing Victor to Northern Ireland!
We are delighted to announce that the members of the NI Opera Studio for 2019/2020 will be:
David Corr (baritone) from County Dublin, Zoë Jackson (soprano) from County Antrim, Ana-Maria Acunune (soprano) from County Dublin, David Lee (counter-tenor) from County Antrim
Beginning the programme in October, the 2019/2020 cohort will appear in several Studio touring productions and recitals, take part in masterclasses and receive vocal coaching from high-profile opera professionals. They will benefit from language and movement coaching and participate in the company’s varied outreach activities. Studio members also have the chance to perform in the company’s main-stage productions and will receive professional career guidance throughout the programme. You can follow their activities thorough the year on Twitter @NIOpera_Studio.
Our NI Opera Studio programme for 2019/20 will include these productions, with more to be announced during the course of the year:
The Enchantress An American operetta
Performance dates 6 – 8 December
Nélée et Myrthis A French baroque opera miniature
Performance dates 5 – 8 March
Rebecca Murphy, a former member NI Opera Studio describes her experience of being part of the programme over the last year:
“The NI Opera Studio allowed me to establish myself in my home country, to make new and important contacts, and has enhanced me as a performer. This year, I had the opportunity to explore several unconventional roles as well as being involved in productions which involved straight acting. These experiences certainly enabled me to become a more ‘rounded’ performer, adding to the list of more conventional roles I had studied at Music College. In addition, I have had the opportunity to attend coaching sessions with Walter Sutcliffe, Kathryn Harries, and participate in a masterclass with Stefan Vinke, all of which gave me new and exciting angles with which to approach my singing. The NI Opera Studio has helped me to bridge the gap between graduating from Music College and entering the singing profession, providing me with the stage time I needed to feel confident about forthcoming auditions.”
Northern Ireland Opera’s outreach week took place in September, giving young people and those from disadvantaged backgrounds from across the city of Belfast the opportunity to access and experience opera, music and educational workshops in the Grand Opera House, Belfast. Primary school children from nine different schools came into the Opera House to take part in workshops exploring sound, music, acting and power poses. Drama students from local secondary schools had the opportunity to meet one of our NI Opera Studio artists, Margaret Bridge, who taught some vocal techniques and performed a solo from the operetta for them. Many of the children then had the opportunity to watch a rehearsal and/or attend our full dress rehearsal for ‘Die Fledermaus’ at the end of Outreach Week.
Our free ‘Bat Ball’ was a great success: a morning of singing, dancing, crafting and performing for children aged 7 -11 from across the city: watch a clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Axc8bRtaDPw We also held a ‘Die Fledermaus’ Come and Sing event, free to all, where amateur singers and choir members joined us and learned popular choruses from ‘Die Fledermaus’ and other operettas, then performed them with soloists from the NI Opera Studio in a short concert.
For the second year running, we opened our dress rehearsal up free to a wide range of schools, youth and community groups and charities, who all had the opportunity to watch a full performance of ‘Die Fledermaus’ in the beautiful Grand Opera House. This was a fantastic afternoon, with many of the audience watching their first ever opera: watch our vox pops to see some of the reactions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkXcughw9Bk
Here’s a small selection of photographs from some of the events during the course of the week:
In June, NI Opera embarked on a thrilling journey through the region with its production of our new children’s opera, ‘The Chronic Identity Crisis of Pamplemousse’. Over the course of three weeks, an ensemble of eight young singers, seven instrumentalists and a creative team comprising some of most exciting young opera practitioners of the island rehearsed and performed a brand new children’s opera exploring themes of confidence and self-acceptance by Belfast composer Greg Caffrey.
We toured the full production to seven venues in Northern Ireland; from Belfast to Fermanagh, from Armagh to Newry, and from Omagh to Derry/Londonderry! As well as performing at local theatres and arts centres, we also brought Pamplemousse to the Ardnashee special school, for the enjoyment of children with learning difficulties. On our journey, we invited more than 1000 children to share the experience of a live opera. Before each performance, school children took part in free music and drama workshops that prepared them for the show and engaged with themes such as empowerment and self-acceptance.
Ahead of the tour, teachers had access to free school resource packs which included information about the opera, instrumentation, games, an interview with the composer, costume drawings and a song from the show. Every child and teacher/parent/carer had the opportunity to fill out an age-appropriate feedback form after each performance. The data will be used to inform further large-scale outreach projects in the company’s future.
Northern Ireland-born baritone Bruno Caproni has enjoyed an international singing career spanning several decades, and is equally passionate about performing as he is about sharing his knowledge and love of opera with the future generation of singers. In 2018, Caproni and renowned pianist Julian Evans inaugurated the summer school Canto al Serchio in Italy’s sun-kissed Tuscany region. Among the exclusive group of young singers invited to this year’s week-long programme will be the winner of the 2018 NI Opera Festival of Voice vocal competition, Margaret Bridge. Now in its ninth year, the Glenarm Festival of Voice will return this August. NI Opera’s Judith Wiemers spoke to Bruno about the Canto al Serchio, opera fandom, and ice cream.
JW: Bruno, it is a great honour for Northern Ireland Opera and our annual Festival of Voice to have your generous support, and we are grateful that you will once again invite this year’s competition winners to the Canto al Serchio. Our NI Opera Voice of 2018 and winner of the Deborah Voigt Opera Prize, mezzo-soprano Margaret Bridge, and fellow NI Opera Studio member Rebecca Murphy will be travelling to Tuscany in only a few days. What does the week hold in store for them? BC: During the summer school the singers will immerse themselves in the Italian culture – both musically and more generally. Simply being in the country where opera was first performed will be an exciting experience, especially here in the region around Lucca – Puccini’s birthplace. Soaking up the atmosphere of the city and the landscape around it, as well as developing an understanding for the historical significance of this place will be valuable additions to the other elements of the summer school. JW: Traveling to Italy for cultural education does of course have a very long tradition. The young Mozart was taken on trips around Italy, not only to promote his prodigious talents, but also to give him access to the best music tuition in Europe. On his journeys, he must have also picked up a fair bit of the language. BC: Our singers will hopefully do the same. We will offer them Italian lessons that are designed for a singer’s specific needs. They will learn some conversational Italian they probably wouldn’t pick up in an ordinary language lesson. JW: Which phrases would be useful to know if I was a singer trying my luck in Italy? BC: You may need questions such as “Where is my dressing room?”, “When is the rehearsal?”, or even something as mundane as “This collar is too tight”. JW: You were born into an entrepreneurial family that ran a successful ice cream parlour in Bangor, but you do of course have an Italian background. When you eventually moved to Italy, did the environment – complete with the language, landscape, maybe even food – change the way you connected with Italian operatic repertoire? BC: It did, funny enough! Being in Italy gave me a deep emotional understanding of the roots of this music, and how it connects to the Italian soul. JW: Let’s talk about the main element of the summer school: the singing. BC: We will spend a lot of time working intensely on operatic repertoire with the singers, building up to a concert at the end of the week. The concert will give our singers the opportunity not only to work towards something throughout the week, but also to practice performing for an invited live audience. In addition to working on their own repertoire, the singers will be taking part in short lectures on opera appreciation. JW: To what extent does learning about the history and performance traditions of opera add to a young singer’s own practice? BC: I regard it as immensely important, and it is my impression that young singers often don’t see the wider picture or have limited knowledge about the great performers of the past. Before I was on the path to a professional career, I was first and foremost an opera lover, and I do believe that knowledge of the opera tradition and its recordings is something that can contribute greatly to a singer’s personal development. JW: Engaging with the great voices of the past and present might also give the participants ideas about their own style? BC: Absolutely, and we will work a lot on interpretation. Ideally, when in an audition, singers will feel comfortable enough with their technique that they can enjoy singing and interpreting the music. Mentoring is an essential part of the summer school. We will give the singers some practical guidance on audition technique, so that they can focus fully on their singing when in front of an audition panel. JW: You have had a long and impressive international career. I am sure you have some wisdom to impart about all aspects of the performing profession, not least managing life and work as a freelance singer. BC: I am very happy to be quizzed about my career, and the challenges that came with it. One learns by their mistakes, of course! Sharing my experience and giving professional advice is very important to me. There are some great tips that I was given by very prominent singers when I was young – some of these have stuck with me for my entire career. I have always been very grateful for receiving advise and I would hope to pass some of it on to the next generation. JW: Have you been keeping an eye on the young singers emerging from the island of Ireland in recent years? BC: Absolutely, and I am quite impressed with the wealth of talent on the island. I still have a strong connection with Northern Ireland, and it is good to see that Northern Ireland Opera continues to thrive, following on from a great tradition of opera performance in the region which even persisted throughout the Troubles. When I left the island to study in Manchester in the 1980s, I was one of the very few who went abroad to pursue a career as a professional singer. A lot has changed since, and it is very uplifting! JW: May I ask a perhaps slightly controversial question to finish off? Who has the better ice cream; the Caproni family parlour or your local Italian vendor? BC: I can say without bad conscience that we have one of the best ice cream parlours here in Barga. It beats Bangor hands down!
JW: I am sure our Festival of Voice winner can’t wait to try it! Thank you for the interview.